The bushfires that have devastated parts of NSW and Victoria are producing smoke which is being blown across Canberra and creating a potential health and safety hazard for workers. This is likely to continue for some time. Bushfire smoke is an example of a risk to health and safety of workers which employers need to manage. The best way to avoid adverse health effects from the smoke is to stay inside, in a filtered environment, and not do any physical exertion. It’s not ok for employers to require you to work in dangerous or hazardous conditions that pose a serious risk to your health and safety.
Your employer has the responsibility to ensure that your work, and your working environment are safe and that you are not at risk while you are working. This might include providing protective equipment, changing the work environment, changing working hours or duties, and providing more rests and other relief.
You have the right to refuse to do work which is unsafe and poses a serious risk to your health and safety – this includes when air quality is hazardous and there is a serious risk to your health. Different people will be differently affected by smoke and the effect on you may depend on whether you have any pre-existing medical condition as well as the nature and environment of your work. If you don’t feel well, or are worried, seek immediate medical advice.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what is reasonable to do when you think there might be a risk to your health and safety at work. If you are in immediate danger, you feel sick or are suffering symptoms, or there is an immediate hazard, you should stop work (let your employer know you’re doing this) and get in contact with your union or the Young Workers Centre: email@example.com or 02 6225 8104. You have the right to stop work if the work is putting you in danger or making you sick or is likely to.
If you need to stop work because the smoke is affecting you: 1. Let your employer/ supervisor know and ask for alternative duties out of the smoke for when you are feeling better; 2. Do an incident report – your workplace will have a form that you can use to record a health and safety incident. It’s really important that there is a record of what has happened. 3. Contact WorksafeACT (the government regulator) to report the problem. Contact details are below. It’s really important that WorksafeACT is aware of any incidents.
In general, exposure to smoke needs to be avoided by staying indoors with windows closed and running an air conditioner, keeping activity levels low and avoiding activities that make you breathe faster and deeper.
The steps needed to minimise exposure include:
• locating work inside or in enclosed structures/vehicles with filters effective for PM2.5 particles
• changing the place of work to where levels are lower or stopping work while smoke haze is hazardous
• reducing work time in area of unfiltered air
• increasing frequency and length of rest times and
• reducing the physical intensity of work to help lower breathing and heart rates.
Expert advice is required for any use of respiratory protection. Respirators need to be able to filter particles and fit the person’s face well. Respirators can increase health risks especially when it’s hot and physical work is involved. Those with medical conditions need medical advice before
using respiratory protection.
Young Workers Centre 6225 8104 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Young Workers Centre provides information and advice to young workers under the age of 25 in the ACT. You can contact us about any question or issue you have about work. We can also advise you which union covers your work and workplace and how to get in touch with them.
WorksafeACT 6207 3000 or email@example.com. WorksafeACT is the government department charged with regulating health and safety in ACT workplaces. Your employer (or you) should notify them if there is a serious incident.